Wild Thing . . . You Make My Heart Sing

My friend, Jill, and I found out about the 17/18 Sign at Jones Beach as we were eating ice cream called Mello-Rolls. It was the ice cream of our youth but not without its hazards.

ice cream cone jb

You knew you weren’t a kid anymore when you could peel the paper away from the cylinder of ice cream without having it land in the sand. When you were young, this happened all the time. Then you cried. Then your dad trudged back to the concession stand to get you another one.

We were 16 now, and we wouldn’t think of being seen at the beach with our parents. And we never dropped our Mello-Rolls any more.

We were just back at our towels when a boy named B.J. Farley sauntered over and plopped himself down on the sand by Jill’s feet.

“So, I don’t think we’ve been introduced,” he said.

We were flattered because this kind of thing wasn’t happening much yet. We also laughed a little because we thought his opening line sounded like something Dean Martin would say.

“Where are you girls from? I know you’re not from Seaford or I would have seen you around.” Apparently, B.J. had an entire repertoire of lines the Rat Pack had tired of, and they were now public domain.

B.J. Farley was from the next town over. He was one of the St. William the Abbot boys we’d spied at Mass the week before. He called his church “St. Willie’s,” all at once adorable and blasphemous. We sat up straighter and listened intently. I concentrated on not dropping my Mello-Roll.

“Why are you all the way down here?” he said after a while. “Come on over and meet my friends at the 17/18 Sign.”

Jones Beach’s creators thought of everything. A theater, a band shell, a little golf course, paddle tennis. There were even numbered signs to help you negotiate the acres of white sand. The signs helped old people who might get lost looking for their umbrella. They helped little kids from getting separated from their parents. All good ideas. But now the 17/18 Sign gave us a geographical focus for making our summer memorable. To the self-absorbed teenage girls we were, that was much more important than dehydrated old people or lost children. So thank you to the sign inventor.

 

jones beach 3

We arrived at the 17/18 Sign like it was base camp for the last good-looking boys in the universe. We recognized many of the boys from Mass the week before. I’d had the good fortune to tag along as a non-Catholic girl. Apparently, I was just in it for the boys in blue blazers and madras ties because I remembered their faces vividly.

We stayed there all afternoon. The Seaford boys played a card game called Hearts and sang along to the radio. They jumped in the ocean when it got too hot, and they thwacked their towels at each other. In other words, they were exactly like boys their age from any town on Long Island. Just not to us. There was something exotic about this bunch of (mostly) Irish Catholic boys who lived two miles away and had been forced to take Latin in school.

“Are you going to the dance at St. Willie’s tonight?”

That was one of the Fitzpatrick brothers, the group that had stolen my heart simply by walking down the aisle at church the week before. It would take some sorting out of names to know which one was talking — John, Joe, Kevin, or Brian — since they all looked like the same boy, just an inch shorter or taller.

Jill and I leaped at our chance for summer romance. We promised ourselves that once we got back to school in September, we would pay attention to Massapequa boys again. We had this discussion on the bus going home. We were perfectly serious about it, too.

The Beach Boys were our moral barometer, and they had been telling us for years to “be true to your school.” And we would. In September. Until then a few summer dances in another town wouldn’t hurt. Had we been given the chance to let the Massapequa boys know our decision, their response would have probably been, “Who are you?” Jill and I were working on our brand back then, still operating pretty much in obscurity.

The Nun at the door said, “Welcome to St. William the Abbot School.” She was smiling, but it seemed forced.

I felt at any second she would ask me for my card that proved I was Catholic. Then she shot a glance at my skirt hem, and I realized what she really cared about. Her face relaxed a little. I knew I had passed her short-skirt criteria for not tempting boys into a life of sin.

The Nuns were doing their best as the dance progressed, but let’s face it. These were not The Sound of Music Nuns, just waiting it out until a rich Colonel came and scooped them up. They were sensible-shoed, wide-faced women of God. I think they were wishing they were back at the Convent House watching The Man from U.N.C.L.E. instead of being called on to supervise teenage lust.

Summer took on a sort of Lewis and Clark charm. By day we camped out at the 17/18 Sign, being charmed and doing our best to be charming. In the evenings, Jill and I walked around for miles, in the dark, in a sometimes complicated route — often barefoot because I thought my feet looked smaller that way. There was a lot of roaming involved.

My friends and I might get to the corner of Park Boulevard and Franklin Avenue after a half hour’s walk. And then as if we were in some sort of hormonal relay race, three girls we knew would give us the metaphorical hand off: “Gary Sullivan and Mark Doyle were just here and they were asking about you!” Heading off in that direction, we might or might not ever find them. And even if we found them, it didn’t mean we would necessarily talk to them.

Sometimes there was a final destination. It was called Hubies, a hamburger stand on Sunrise Highway. For reasons unknown, it attracted hordes of teenagers who swarmed the parking lot night after night. We acted like it was one giant coincidence that we all ended up standing under that neon. I don’t ever remember eating anything.

These summer nights got replayed a lot when I became the mother of teenagers myself many years later. I wondered how, in 1966, our parents ever trusted us to stand on the side of a 4-lane highway, flirting so vigorously that our heads were probably spinning, and then top it all off by walking home in the dark. They had no way of contacting us, which now seems unbearable. I wondered if they worried. That’s not true. I wondered how much.

Now my kids are parents themselves. I’m one generation removed from the nail-biting years. My memories of the summer at the 17/18 Sign and Hubies are all carefree now. And I remember the sweetest moments.

Like the evening someone turned up his car radio as “Wild Thing” was playing. We started dancing in the parking lot. Tommy Henshaw was my partner. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt that was much too big for him, and he sang along as we danced.

Jill and I walked home. In the dark. Giggling and chatting. No cell phones. No Sacajewea. I was home by 10. And I was sure I’d be young forever.

Why I Don’t Throw Away My Parents’ Letters

When my parents were in their 70s, they downsized and decided on a sensible condominium. That meant leaving the house on Hamilton Avenue, in Massapequa, where I had grown up. They began getting rid of stuff, and my mother made it clear that I should make room in my car on my next visit to take some things back to Baltimore.

When I got to their house, five boxes with my name on them were stacked by the front door, my mother’s subtle way of saying, “Please get this crap out of here.”

Two contained books I didn’t read in college. Two more held clothes that might come in handy for a Halloween costume somewhere down the line, if I could ever fit into them, which would never happen. The last was a shoebox labeled, Linda’s Letters from College.

The box with the letters was unexpected. I didn’t know my mother had kept them, and knowing what they said, I wished she hadn’t. I considered just throwing the box away, unopened, knowing how embarrassed I’d be if I read them. Then I thought, “She saved them for 30 years.” So when I was back in Baltimore and alone, I opened each letter as if a hairy spider might jump out at me. They were every bit as bad as I remembered.

I can see I wrote every week of freshman year. I don’t know what got me the most — that I come from an era where people actually wrote letters, or that these innocent little envelopes contained such didactic drivel. Apparently, I had figured out everything by second semester away at a state college, and I felt the need to share.

I want to say it’s the letters from sophomore year in 1970 make me wince, but it’s worse than that. I’m ashamed of them. I was taking Sociology 101 that spring, which made me an expert on Vietnam, racial tension, and poverty. I had an epiphany in that class about my upbringing and, in those letters, hit my parents over the head with it, with lengthy paragraphs outlining their many mistakes.

They had given me a middle class childhood that I would now have to crawl out of because — really — there were few conditions worse than being middle class. Even I (who was practically a sociologist at that point) couldn’t think of anything worse. I lectured them on how they had bought into “the system.” They were materialistic. They didn’t understand oppression in America. If I had to label the tone I adopted, “How dare you!” would probably do it.

In 1950, ever the planners, my parents moved into our home a few months before I was born. Our neighborhood was just-planted maple trees, loose gravel on the road, and no sidewalks.

Most of the streets within a mile radius were named for American states and cities. But by the time they got to my street, Canada was suddenly involved with the street names Toronto, Ontario, and my street, Hamilton. I walked nine blocks to school, passing streets with names like New Hampshire, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Massachusetts, which gave me time to think about how the street-naming process should have been more organized. I wanted a street name that was American. I didn’t think it was too much to ask, considering the times and my patriotic heart. I took some solace in the fact that I didn’t live on the next street over from mine — Jerusalem — because I had no idea where Jerusalem was.

My parents wanted a house with a basement, not one built on a concrete slab, so Levittown was out. Ours was a two-bedroom Cape Cod with one bathroom. These houses also came with a garage, an unfinished basement, and an attic that, sooner or later, almost everyone would expand with a dormer for more bedrooms. Even when our parents looked at the tiny boxes these homes were, they were imagining the future.

The basement space came in handy for the rec room. I used to see ads in the Saturday Evening Post of families gathered around their ping pong tables, with trays of food behind them on a built-in bar. The lighting was always soft, and those rec rooms had carpeting. Some even had a fireplace and a piano with a dozen or so people arm in arm, belting out a tune.

Our rec room had trouble keeping up. It was at the bottom of our wooden stairs with those brown rubber pads on them so you wouldn’t trip. It had one tiny casement window, knotty-pine paneling that went halfway up the wall, and a linoleum floor in a pattern that looked like an accident of some kind. In the summer I’d make believe it was air-conditioned when we watched TV down there. In the winter you needed a blanket over you. My parents talked about mildew a lot. But at least our house didn’t sit on a slab.

My father signed up for the GI Bill and began college classes at night after his workday at Grumman was over. For twelve years, he commuted to Hofstra two evenings a week. The other three nights my mother worked the evening shift as a nurse at Brunswick Hospital, in neighboring Amityville. Those nights my father studied while taking care of me, and later, my two brothers. On the weekends they cleaned house, food shopped, and cleared the decks for the week ahead.

In the summers we took a vacation, but my father, a history buff and reader, was always partial to places like Gettysburg or Fort Ticonderoga, so even then I wasn’t having as much fun as other kids. Holidays involved the same cast of characters my whole life — aunts, uncles, cousins, and neighbors. Food, fun, and lots of noise. Imagine my angst.

That was the life I was up against when I took stock in 1970. Years and years later, I got over the embarrassing situation my parents had put me in, and began carving out — imagine this — a middle class life for my own kids. The only differences were that I worked half as hard and talked about it twice as much as Jean and Ed DeMers did.

When do you get far enough away from your childhood to really see it for what it was? Maybe when you get your first job and that alarm clock isn’t your friend, and it dawns on you that your dad did this every single morning while you were asleep in your cozy bed.

Maybe the moment you see your first baby. And that overwhelming love takes you by surprise. And only then do you understand how your parents felt the day they met you.

I think my mother knew exactly what she was doing when she handed me that box of letters. It was as if she was saying, “Someday you’ll see.”

And I kept them all. And I do.

“Plus You Have a Really Bad Accent”

As a college freshman in 1968, I landed in the middle of New York State and couldn’t believe there wasn’t a decent bagel anywhere. I was homesick for Long Island, the center of my universe. I’d never seen so many pickup trucks or people chewing (and spitting) tobacco as I did on Main Street in Cortland. It snowed on Halloween. I felt like I’d moved to Jupiter.

To counterbalance, I talked about Massapequa incessantly — how you could find anything you needed on Sunrise Highway, and how my high school had a championship football team. One day in the dining hall, I was in the middle of explaining to some girls why my hometown was known as “Matzo-Pizza” because it occurred to me that near-strangers were mesmerized by stories of my youth. (And here you’re thinking, she hasn’t changed much. You’re on to me.) Anyway, I was taking way too long in my explanation, figuring I had to go slowly because they’d probably never heard of matzo or stepped inside a real pizzeria.

Finally, a girl from Utica had enough.

She stopped me and said, “You know,” The City doesn’t always mean New York City, and The Island doesn’t always mean Long Island.”

I think I paused here, maybe with my mouth open a tiny bit, because she felt the need to simplify. “There are other cities and other islands in this state.”

Somehow, this was big news to me.

She wasn’t finished. “Plus you have a really bad accent.”

The first part amazed me, but as I began to look around I could see she was right. Who knew there were girls in the United States who had never stepped foot in a mall? Or that a town might have only one supermarket? Who knew that you could spend kindergarten through 12th grade in one building? For that matter, I don’t think I realized that people actually lived on farms. I thought they just hired people.

The second part stung. I didn’t know I had an accent, much less a bad one. Until I got to college and met people from Syracuse and Buffalo, I’d never heard a “flat a” sound in my life.

So I took a breath, and later that afternoon — being the deep thinker I was back then — I began to reinvent myself. I decided I kind of liked the way upstate people spoke. They sounded buoyant and hopeful. That’s what I wanted to be. I started with the word “cawfee” and went from there.

I also changed my handwriting because suddenly all the complicated capital letters in the ornate Palmer Method no longer suited me. I went instead with a print-like conglomeration that I hoped would say Linda is a simple, generous young woman, who does not overwhelm people with her large, loopy letters. If you didn’t know she was from Long Island, you might think she came from a quaint little hamlet on a lake with a population of 150.

After a few months, I stopped mentioning Massapequa every ten minutes like it was the cradle of civilization. By second semester, my accent — bad or otherwise — was completely gone, and my mother was complaining that my handwriting looked like a second-grader’s. When I graduated, I stayed in Central New York.

The first time I reopened my high school yearbook probably took five years. When I did, I read lots of this: “Never forget all the fun we had in French.” Or the laughs we had trying to conquer the uneven parallel bars. Or the day the lunch lady dropped that tray on John.

When the 10-year reunion happened, a time when I could have refreshed my memory about that gym class or poor John and the lunch tray, I couldn’t make it. I’d just had a baby, and if I’d considered traveling 300 miles to stand in a hotel ballroom with anyone, it wasn’t going to be when I hadn’t slept in four weeks and my breasts leaked milk every time I looked down at them.

The 20th reunion took place the year I was in a bad mood. We had moved to Baltimore. I couldn’t understand anything people said because they spoke in a thick dialect meant to throw Yankees off course. We had bought a split-level house — the type of home I swore I’d never live in. And my kids were a sloppy mess about how much they missed their friends.

Now our 50th reunion approaches, so clearly it’s been a while for me and the Class of ’68. I wonder how much I’ve changed, or I wonder if I’ve changed as much as I think I have. The older I get, the more I think that you pretty much are what you were when. Except for changing a few vowel sounds. And now we come with more stories to tell.

I think by 2018, our class will have long forgotten those singular, sweet and silly memories of high school that we inscribed in each others’ yearbooks. But we’ll be filled with the only bond that really matters. Massapequa will always be our “when.”

Maybe the day after the big party, we’ll have “cawfee.” And maybe I’ll even say it the right way.

My Neighborhood “Uncles”

She is wearing a fluorescent green bathing suit. She is 10 maybe. I can see from her body language that the ocean is just not her thing.

The man she calls Uncle Nick is gently coaxing her into the surf, to her ankles, then her knees, where they let the waves break over them, and she begins to laugh. Before long, the girl has mastered the art of riding waves and coming to a sandy halt. Then, as if on repeat, she jumps up and she leads him back in so they catch the next one.

I’ve seen  her go from “I don’t want to,” to “Watch me, Uncle Nick!” in the space of an hour. And I’m remembering my 10-year-old self. And thinking about my uncles.

I was accorded several real uncles, who appeared automatically in my life the day I was born. But like most of the kids in my Long Island neighborhood in the 1950s, I was also entitled to other “uncles,” not related to our family but connected in a way that was just as real. They were my parents’ oldest friends or neighbors who knew me my whole life, like Uncle Herb, who lived around the corner from us.

I was a cautious child who liked lots of practice in private before I did anything publicly. Riding waves with scores of people standing in the surf at Jones Beach carried too many risks for the child I was. Wading would have been forever fine with me, had Uncle Herb and I not stood together that day in the shallow surf, ankle deep. He was getting his toes wet, chatting with me about the school year that had just finished. His children, a slew of blond hearty kids who were never afraid of anything, had already taken their positions out past the breaking surf, and were yelling for their father to come out and join them.

I’m pretty sure I was an afterthought. “Come on, Linda,” he said, “Let’s ride some waves.”

He held out his hand. Hoping he wouldn’t make fun of me when he saw how inept I knew I’d be, I went, but just barely. He talked me through my nerves as the waves bounced me around.

“Put your arms like this,” he said. “Try to keep your head down,” and I remember how different he looked wet and without his eyeglasses. He held on to me when a big wave overpowered my skinny body and I was tossed under.

Uncle Herb stayed with me until I caught on, and I continued riding waves (with a certain panache, I’ve always thought) for a few more summers, before watching lifeguards eat their lunches became more worthy of my time at the beach.

Labor Day that year, it was barbeque time. In a houseful of company, most of whom were relatives, my mother decided to pass around some of my poetry. I was never sure about this. I was proud that she thought I had talent, but she seemed oblivious to public opinion. Most of the adults would glance at a page  and then mumble a few kind, vague words, having not really read any of it. Then they’d go back to talking about more important issues, like maybe the sale on pork chops at Bohack’s.

“Herb,” my mother said, “Have you seen these poems?”

I would say “poems” was a kind way to put it. I would say that I was blessed with a mother who thought I was pretty when I wasn’t, had a flair for the artistic when I didn’t, and who believed that she had given birth to the next Emily Dickinson. Hence a continual thread of conversation in the living room that began, “Have you seen these?”

Now it was Uncle Herb’s turn, and frankly I thought he had already put in more than his share of time with the whole ocean thing. But he smiled and took the handful of notebook pages. Peeking in from the kitchen, I watched his eyes moving over every word. After he finished the last piece, he found me and pressed them into my hand. And as if he had unearthed a great secret between us, he said, “You’re a writer. A real writer.”

My “uncles” told us when it was time to go in on summer nights when we didn’t want to stop playing tag. They sat on our back patio and popped open a can of Budweiser as they discussed the Mets. They toasted my college graduation. They danced at my wedding. They held my babies in their arms and pronounced each of them beautiful whether they were or not. Even now when he answers the phone with a soft, barely audible “hello,” I wouldn’t think of starting any other way: “Hi Uncle Herb, it’s Linda.”

If we’re lucky, we have an adult in our lives who, even for one summer afternoon, teaches us how to negotiate the surf — when to jump, when to dive, and how to ride the waves all the way to shore.

“You did great,” Uncle Nick is telling the girl in the green bathing suit now, as they shake the water from their hair and jog toward their blanket on the beach. I watch her face.

Same ocean. Different uncle. I hope she remembers, too.

I Survived the Boardwalk Restaurant

“I need to talk to you, in private,” she says. I hate that sentence.

“Have a seat,” I say, trying my best to pretend she hasn’t been crying. “So what’s going on?”

She is my daughter’s age and the best editor in the department. At the moment, though, she’s been blindsided by how hard it is to work here. Maybe hearing “good job!” too often when she was little set her up for feeling defeated this morning after a conference call that didn’t go our way. I think my generation forgot to tell our kids that jobs are hard. And there are no trophies.

After laying out everything that’s wrong with our company and throwing in a few suggestions about how I could improve things, she goes to the ladies’ room to splash some cold water on her face. Knowing the resilience of these young people I’ve hired, ten minutes will probably do it. I get my pep talk in place. I’ll compliment her terrific work ethic. I’ll talk about dealing with the pressures of our industry, which seem to mount with every merger. But it’s not what I really want to say.

What I really want to say is: “You think this job is hard? Try being a waitress for a week.”

I spent two summers as a waitress at the Boardwalk Restaurant at Jones Beach in the late sixties. All these years later, I still have the same response every time a server says, “Hi, I’m ____, and I’ll be taking care of you.” I picture the 19-year-old me, poured into my snug-fitting uniform, smiling anxiously, hoping customers would be kind, and petrified that I’d spill coffee on small children.

As soon as summer began, Josie, our boss, had only a few days to get the new crop of college girls up to speed on everything from clearing dishes to up-selling, and she didn’t waste a minute. She dressed only in black — blouse, skirt, stockings, shoes. She walked/ran at a pace that made me think the building was on fire every time she passed. And then to fully overwhelm me, Josie gave directions in a German accent so Germanic that I could understand only half of her terrifying messages. The rest I got from her body language, equally terrifying.

Let’s face it. The only thing the Boardwalk Restaurant had going for it was its location. Most times, if the fish was cold or the drink watered down, reminding people to take in the white sand and mighty surf right outside the wall of windows did the trick. It worked best with people who hadn’t been out of Queens or Brooklyn in a very long time.

In early August one of the dishwashers showed us a newspaper ad for a music festival upstate. For lots of Long Island kids, upstate was a place about as far north as Nova Scotia, but I went to college at Cortland, so I knew that New York state actually extended beyond Westchester. Bethel was only about 2½ hours away. The buzz increased as days went on, and my waitress friends and I began making plans. We knew if we didn’t, we’d be the only people alive under 21 who hadn’t made it to Woodstock.

We would call in sick on the morning we were leaving, but all with different symptoms so Josie wouldn’t catch on. I chose a mysterious, perhaps deadly, high fever. Then once we got to Woodstock — if it was any good — we’d find a pay phone and keep calling in sick for as many days as we needed to. Justine’s car held five people. We’d chip in for gas. We’d stop at the 7-Eleven for snacks on the way. As far as plans hatched in 1969 went, this one was ironclad.

Though it was true Josie had left her sense of humor back in Stuttgart, she did read the newspaper every morning. And she’d recently been rumored to be hiding in a stall in the women’s room with her feet up, picking up word of impending mutinies where she could.

She called an impromptu waitress meeting and said to the 30 of us who were by now all practicing our sick telephone voices, “Anyone who calls in sick tomorrow, I know you’re going to Woodcock, and you will be fired. No Woodcock! That is it.”

When we all showed up for our shift the next day, Josie refused to trust the time card machine. Holding a clipboard at the door, she checked off each name with a triumphant little snort. She was 30-for-30 at keeping her staff at work that weekend, which was, I believe, the North American record. We found solace where we could, getting a lot of mileage out of passing each other and saying under our breath, “No Woodcock!”

Being a waitress meant there were nights, half an hour before closing, when I was so tired I wanted to cry. And then a party of eight might come in and be seated in my section. They would already be drunk, but it wouldn’t keep them from ordering a round of complicated cocktails. And the bartender would be in a bad mood because his girlfriend had just broken up with him and tell me to garnish them myself. And that would lead me to put a maraschino cherry, a lemon slice, and some orange rind in a gin and tonic because I didn’t know any better. I thought a more colorful drink would be a nice touch. And even the drunk person knew that wasn’t right and would call me on it, loudly.

In bed at midnight, with my feet still throbbing, I’d be unable to stop replaying all the ridiculous conversations of my day.

“Are you sure this is decaf?” and the stupid little response we all gave with a forced smile, “I promise. Tell you what? I’ll give you my phone number, just in case it’s not.”

Or “These shrimp were caught today, right?” In my almost dreamy state I always answered, “These shrimp are probably older than you are,” and that would make me smile and get some rest.

I was sad to hear that the Boardwalk Restaurant was demolished in 2004 and that in the decade since, only an empty space marks the spot where it once stood at the Central Mall. It bothers me that it met such an ignoble end, I guess because I learned a few life lessons there.

I learned I had a knack for making grumpy diners less grumpy with a clever turn of phrase. I learned the customer is always right. And your first job is always hard. I learned how to stay on Josie’s good side and hoped she would never stop mentioning “Woodcock” because it helped me feel less tormented about not making it to the greatest cultural event of my generation.

The young editor is back now, slowly regaining some composure. She asks, “How would you feel if I just took the rest of the day off to regroup?” She gives me her reasons. She’s embarrassed. She’s tired. She just doesn’t see how she can keep up this pace.

Part of me thinks I should let her go home early. But I tell her, “No,” and I have my reasons, too. The dinner rush is just starting. I want her to learn to collect herself after she’s dropped a tray of drinks. I want her to know how great it feels to avoid spilling coffee on toddlers.

And, hey, I missed Woodstock.

St. William the Abbot, the Seaford Boys, and a Change of Heart

I was jealous of my friend, Brenda, and I can admit it now. We were sophomores at Massapequa High School, a year that was neither fish nor fowl for all of us, except her. She was athletic, could sing harmony and play guitar, and proved herself to be absolutely fearless in social situations. And on top of it all, she was Catholic.

I had been shuttled to Presbyterian Sunday School until my confirmation, and after that my parents seemed pretty much done with anything organized on Sundays. I must have been a fiction-writer kind of child — that’s all I can come up with — to explain how I loved to make up stories that supplanted everyday life. Maybe I loved mystery, too. I sort of fell into my love of a religion I knew practically nothing about thanks to weekend sleepovers at Brenda’s house.

Brenda’s mother seemed okay with my tagging along to Mass, but I sometimes got the feeling I was making her bend a rule.

She’d say, “Remember, Linda, you have to stay in the pew when Brenda takes Communion.” She’d remind me not to touch the Holy Water. And she insisted I wear a white borrowed mantilla, when I would have far preferred the more dramatic black.

I longed for all the have-to’s the Church required of Brenda. She had to go to Confession. There were things called Holy Days of Obligation, a phrase that let you know right off the bat that Catholics didn’t fool around. Before we could go to the movies, her mother had to look up the title in the Legion of Decency. She couldn’t eat meat on Fridays. She fasted on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. In our house we had the Golden Rule, which was a disappointing second place to everything Brenda got to do.

I wangled an invitation to Mass whenever I could. I learned the Hail Mary and Apostles Creed, never saying it aloud, of course, but watching Brenda recite it with a confidence I envied. And then there were the occasional young priests or seminarians up in front, for whom I’d invent an elaborate back-story. My favorite was that they’d suffered a heartbreak for which there was no other cure. They had given their lives to the Church in an act that was noble and final, but always caused them to look pensive and wistful during the Our Father.

Earlier in my childhood, I’d gone through a period where I’d been in love with the Nun side of Catholicism, too. My mother had a cousin who had taken her final vows in her early 20s, and we would visit her a few times a year at the Convent. Her name had gone from Bonnie to Sister Mary Benedict in what was something of a jolt for me, as if overnight she had reinvented herself. She dressed in full habit with only her face and hands showing. I was enamored. She was graceful and paid attention to me. She seemed perfectly serene. She wore a slim gold band on her left hand, which she told me meant she was married to Jesus.

True to my bent for fiction and drama, when Vatican II came along and raised Sister Mary Benedict’s hemline and let us see her hair for the first time, these visits seemed to have less of an emotional pull on me. A few years later, when she left the Order entirely, her father blamed her decision on the changes that John XXIII had brought about — mostly her shrinking habit and the fact that she could now drive a car.

“Well, you know, you can’t keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree,” my uncle said at Sunday dinner. I nodded solemnly though I had no idea what he was talking about.

After she became Bonnie again, I would still see her at family gatherings, and she was still lovely to me, but it would never be the same. I wonder if Maria von Trapp noticed people treating her differently after she made the big move.

One weekend when I was sleeping over at Brenda’s, logistics demanded that we go to Mass on a Saturday night, so her mom said she would drop us off at St. William the Abbot Church, in Seaford. On the drive over, I tried to think of something Catholic to say because that always put Brenda’s mother in a good mood. I mentioned that I’d seen the Pietà at the World’s Fair two years before. It was pretty dated content, I agree, but it was all the Catholic I had.

“Wasn’t it magnificent?” she asked.

I said, “Yes,” but the truth was that the experience had left me confused. I had gone with my grandmother, a woman who loved art but was suspicious of all religion. It started out well, with Mary and Jesus lit up in front of the blue velvet curtain, and you got to pass the statue on a moving walkway, something I’d never seen before. But I started watching a group of old Italian widows in front of us, all dressed in black. They began making the sign of the cross and praying aloud. Overcome with the moment, I crossed myself, too. My grandmother’s purse grazed the side of my head.

“We don’t do that!” she said in my ear.

It was true. We didn’t. But I couldn’t see any reason why we shouldn’t.

On the way to St. William the Abbot with Brenda and her mom, I was relieved that my grandmother was at home in Queens and had no idea I was on my way to Mass, where I fully intended to make the sign of the cross as many times as possible.

Brenda opened the big wooden door of the stucco church, and the smell of candles and incense and the old wood swept me up. St. William’s was smaller, older, and somehow more Catholic than her regular parish church. We sat toward the back. The kneeling bench was sticky, and I had some trouble getting it down so I could talk to God about how much I wanted to be Catholic and getting to the logistics of how we could make that happen.

My eyes must have been open because I knew the moment the McNamara brothers strolled in. They were followed a moment later by the Fitzpatrick boys — all four of them like perfect Irish nesting dolls — in navy blue blazers, madras ties, and khakis. They knelt and crossed themselves in one fluid motion and then sat down a few pews in front of us. Then they nudged each other about something hilarious in the row in front of them. It was my first inkling that I had a “type,” and apparently most of them lived in Seaford and went to St. William the Abbot Church.

Just a few minutes before, I’d been thinking that maybe I’d given up prematurely on following in Bonnie’s footsteps. Though becoming a Nun hadn’t exactly dovetailed with my way of thinking lately as I practiced kissing boys in the mirror in my bedroom, perhaps it deserved a second look.

Two minutes after pondering a life of sacrifice and piety and chastity, the Seaford boys walked in. And by the time the Priest said, “Go in peace,” the door on that career had slammed shut forever.

Finding Gary Dush on Facebook

When my mother was 73, she said, “I want you to find Jonathan Pinsky for me.”

I knew Jonathan Pinsky’s face from photo albums I pored over as a kid, thinking it kind of crazy that my mother was once young. I knew about Jonathan Pinsky from her stories about him. He was the smartest kid in her class and won a full scholarship to Columbia. He always had a crush on her and would drop by their house with flowers. My grandmother loved him. My mother was so-so.

“What do you mean, find him?” I asked.

“You know, go on the computer and look around and tell me what became of him. I’m curious.”

Back then, having a home computer was relatively new for people my parents’ age, and, though they’d bought one the year before, theirs had already become a Free Cell Solitaire machine by the time she asked for my help. My mother realized that I used the Internet for its true intended purposes: stalking old boyfriends and diagnosing obscure illnesses. So she went with my expertise.

I tried for many hours but couldn’t find her old friend.

Being lost to the ages like that hardly ever happens to people of my generation. Say what you will about us — we do like to keep our names and faces out there. “Greatest Generation” or not, our parents just never had the chance to ride the social media train like we have.

Facebook has been a boon to people like me who are curious about whatever became of, okay, everyone I ever met. I love it when Baby Boomers talk about navigating Facebook as if we are really tuned into modern technology. We brag about uploading a photo or unfriending someone as if we’re Navajo Code Talkers. I will say, however, that it took me only 15 seconds to find Gary Dush’s profile when I went looking for it recently. But when it comes to people’s Internet footprints, you hit pay dirt with a name like Dush, so I’m not taking any credit.

Gary was an older boy from the neighborhood. I’d known his name my whole life, partly because of its indelicacy, but also because you knew everyone’s name back then whether you ever spoke directly to him or not. Until the summer day that he became a vivid memory, he’d always been on the not side.

My two best friends and I were hanging around Jill’s house, getting in her mother’s way as she cleaned. When she turned on the vacuum, we knew it was time to move. The Rexall Drug Store, two blocks away, was always a fallback in our effort not to over-exert ourselves. It had all the essentials: a clearance bin of 45s, nail polish, and movie magazines. We saw Gary and his friends coming toward us on the sidewalk.

I can see from his Facebook profile that Gary still looks a little mean, the way he did all through childhood. No boy in Massapequa could resist taking a verbal poke at him, and I’m sure his permanently crabby mood had something to do with being called Gary Douche his whole life. Jill, Brenda, and I questioned the nickname a few times. We knew it alluded to some pink rubber contraption with a hose that Jill said she saw drying on their shower curtain rod once in a while. It had something to do with being a married woman, but that was as far as we got.

We walked to a certain pedestrian rhythm. We would eye the group coming toward us, identify them without even thinking about it since we knew everyone, and then move a few steps to the right or left so each group could get by. I don’t remember what we were talking about as Gary and his friends approached on Broadway.

I don’t know if he rehearsed his little speech, or why he chose me over Brenda or Jill. But suddenly he stopped and pointed up at me, close to my face.

“You are so ugly! No one is ever going to want to make out with you!”

They passed us. They laughed until they were out of hearing range.

I didn’t obsess until bedtime, but then the parsing began. I was okay with his first sentence. I knew it was the truth. But the second part scared me because I really was planning on having a boyfriend someday. Did he think I would never make out with him, or with anyone? Ever? Had he already made out with some beautiful girl somewhere, and that’s how he knew? How did he know?

When Gary Dush said those words to me at 13, I took it as a final verdict. A boy had said something to me, about me, so it must be true. It took some years to uncover that it really doesn’t work that way.

Gary Dush’s Facebook profile only has one photograph, and I spend a long time looking at it. Maybe he doesn’t really look mean, I think to myself. Maybe he’s just squinting into the afternoon Arizona sun. I wonder if he’s still short or if he had a late growth spurt. I wonder if he’d remember my name.

Facebook profiles are often misleading, of course, so there’s really only one thing I know for sure. And that one thing makes me smile as I close my laptop. Gary Dush missed the mark at predicting my future. By a mile.

Quick Requiem at a Red Light

After landing on Long Island and renting a car, I’m lost within ten minutes of leaving the airport parking lot. I didn’t think I’d need a GPS in my homeland, but apparently I do. One town just slides into another and looks exactly like the last one did. I feel like there used to be space between them that let you know you were changing zip codes. Okay, it’s been a while.

It makes me wonder how teenagers keep school rivalries going these days. In the Class of ’68, we referred to kids from Wantagh — three miles away — with a vague, almost mythical, curiosity as if they spoke a different dialect and worshipped at Stonehenge. I’m guessing that’s all over now because kids don’t actually have to see each other anymore to be BFF’s. Maybe kids don’t root for the home team either. Maybe they don’t chant at football games, or even go to football games. We shouted, “We are good! We are great! We’re the Class of ’68!” Our lungs got a workout back then. But we hardly ever used our thumbs the way kids do today.

I finally get my bearings by telling myself that when I get to the corner with Shoe Town on the right and Carvel up ahead on the left, I’ll know where I am. And then I recognize that I’m at that corner, but Shoe Town is gone. It’s a bank now. It’s probably been a bank for years. Maybe it’s not even the original building. I have no idea. When you haven’t lived in your hometown since 1973, things like this happen.

Shoe Town was one of the few perfect things in my pubescent years, and it seems right to mourn its passing as I wait at the red light. Before it came into my life and offered me the anonymity I needed with feet like mine, shoe shopping was a humiliating hell. Before the boxy store on the corner went up, all I had were smarmy salesmen measuring my foot and then sighing and saying, “I’ll see what I can do,” only to come back from that secret room in the back with one box instead of the five or six choices other girls got.

The summer before 6th grade, just before Shoe Town opened, my mother and I went on a fruitless quest to find something in my size (10) that wasn’t a patent-leather stiletto heel designed for a woman three times my age.

After one salesman measured my foot, he looked over at my mother and said, “Well, we don’t have any shoes that will fit her, but I could give you a couple of boxes to take home.”

She pretended to think it wasn’t funny, but later when I overheard her telling the story to my father, I could hear chuckles all around. This is what I was up against until I finally found a shoe store that made sense.

For one thing, Shoe Town was self-serve way before its time, so I could be my own agent. I could also walk there with my friends and spend as much time as I needed to try on every shoe in Size 8 or 9 that looked like it had any chance of fitting my foot and walking a few steps before I’d melt in pain in front of the full length mirrors they had in the corners.

Eventually I’d wander over to the Size 10 rack where I belonged and settle on a pair that didn’t embarrass me too much. Later, in my room, I would rub the 10 from inside the shoes until it was gone. Just in case. I took shoe size very seriously, as if it were a blight on my character.

When you come back to the place where you grew up, it’s all right there, sitting at a red light. Now you remember everything. How good it felt to buy your own shoes and carry them home. How the Carvel Flying Saucer melted in your hand all the way down Jerusalem Avenue. Opening your front door and knowing that roast chicken was for dinner. Your mother humming along to the Ray Conniff Singers on the HiFi. Running up the stairs to your room and trying on your new shoes. And thinking there was no way life would ever change from that day.

So you mourn the passing of a shoe store that was kind to you, and that’s not the weirdest thought you have at the red light. The oddest thing is that you still call this town home.

Oh, Jones Beach, You Were So Worth It

After eight months of thinking I should get this pesky spot on my face checked out, one morning I woke up and started to panic. I might have been watching too much Discovery Channel, but I went from thinking, I’ll get around to it one of these days, to calling a dermatologist as if my chin had just melted off.

“Is this an emergency?” the receptionist wanted to know.

It may have been my tone. I took a breath and told her my symptoms.

“I have an opening a week from Thursday,” she said. It always soothes me when the person answering the phone hears my story and still sounds as bored as she did when she first said, “Dr. Goldfarb’s office. May I help you?”

This spot near my temple — whatever it’s called — is all my fault. It’s not the kind of disease that lands on innocent people’s pancreases while they sleep, or attaches itself to one of your lymph nodes even though you’ve eaten kale and gotten eight hours of sleep your entire life.

If my skin is about to crust over and slide off my face, I did it to myself, starting when I was 16 and began spending my summers in the sun, lathering on the baby oil and cursing the clouds. Memorial Day would begin with a marathon bake that served as a base coat. My goal was to overcome the Anglo Saxon genes in my DNA and stay the color of medium toast through September. Tanning was my only sport, and though I didn’t have a prayer of beating out Greek or Italian girls, I gave it my all.

1966 had been good to me. The extra room in my bra was finally being called into action. Almost overnight, it seemed, my bony hips were gone, and fat deposits became my friend in a way they would never be my friend again. My mother gave me permission to use Summer Blonde on my mousy brown hair. It morphed into the shiny blonde of my childhood, hair I only knew in pictures. And — as if that weren’t enough — I lived in a place where Jones Beach, ten miles of pristine sand on the Atlantic Ocean, was all mine for a 35¢ bus ride. Now the only thing left to do was wreck my skin forever.

Dr. Goldfarb, whose waiting room is full of mauve chairs and concerned folks in their 80s, walks into the exam room as he is reading my chart.

“So what brings you in today?”

I explain the situation as if nothing about it is my fault, and — oddly — I think I can fool him. The first question he asks is about sun exposure when I was young. Apparently, he’s on to me.

“How long has this spot been there?”

I cut the time by two-thirds so neither of us will become alarmed. He stares at it. He pokes it with an instrument. He picks up my newly created file and jots something down.

“We can take care of that for you,” he says in my direction over his reading glasses.

Before he fixes me, though, he lectures me about the error of my youthful ways. And I’m thinking that unless he’s storing his time machine in the next room, this is rather a waste of our ten minutes together and a copay.

He says, “basal cell blah blah blah” and “dermis something something,” but since all immediate danger has passed, I’m now noticing that he doesn’t have a single wrinkle on his forehead. This probably comes in handy when you don’t want to look horrified in front of a patient whose skin might be full of pustules. His cuffs are monogrammed. And he has $1,000 worth of pens in his pocket. There is money in old people’s skin, and it looks like I’ve arrived squarely in the middle of his demographic although I don’t feel at all ready to be here.

I wince as he freezes the dry spot on my face. We have a discussion about SPF products. I make promises. He turns to write a prescription for salve, and I know he’ll soon be on his way to another post-menopausal former bikini-beauty who is waiting in the next room.

But he turns, and — for the first time — looks directly into my eyes.

“Do you have someone who regularly sees your back?”

Such a simple question. But it takes me by surprise.

“No.”

“Would you like me to take a quick look?”

“Sure!” I say, reaching for an upbeat tone. I’m trying to sound like I’m not embarrassed that I have no one to look at my back.

Then I pray that there’s not some painless carcinoma galloping across my shoulder blade that’s about to be discovered. If I had a person who slept with me every night, he’d have had ample opportunity to view me from all angles and — if necessary — shout out, “Holy mother of God, what is that purple thing hanging off your back?” But that hasn’t happened, so I don’t know if there is anything purple there or not, honestly.

I yank my sweater up in the back so he can get a full view. The sweater rides up in the front, too, and gentle rolls spread out in front of me even though I’m sucking in and holding my breath. I can’t remember if my bra is the black lacy one, which would seem so . . . unnecessary, and I have no idea why I bought it anyway.

“Looks fine,” he says, and reaches for one of his Mont Blanc pens to write (probably) “Back looks fine.”

I am relieved about my back, but I feel a little sorry for the rest of my skin because I know where it’s probably heading. I’m slated for veiny hands and more wrinkles and liver spots and probably a few more spins around the Ferris wheel with Dr. Goldfarb.

Would I have rather stayed in the shade? Ha.

Oh, Jones Beach, you were so worth it.